Tucked away in a mountainside town that is located 40 minutes away from Salt Lake City, one of the world’s premiere film festivals provides a platform for A-list actors and undiscovered talent, some of the cinema’s greatest auteurs and first feature films that pander to the distribution market’s sensibilities. A tension exists within the lineup between the warm, but typically shallow, “Sundancey” style and more daring projects made by some of the best filmmakers of our time. Felix Van Groeningen’s Belgica (5/10), which is his follow-up to the widely praised The Broken Circle Breakdown, was an unlikely opener for a festival that usually favors faux-art house quirk over formal exuberance, and feel-good pandering over thoughtful observations.
Belgica centers on two brothers who become business partners in the creation of an epic nightclub where everyone is welcome – the “Noah’s ark” of bars we’re told. But when the flood comes, neither of them are ready. Revving us up to eliminate any lags left by jets or roadtrips, Belgica, when at its best, is a cocaine trip without having to snort drugs, a film designed for us to revel in the party without having to commit to the danger that comes with the indulgence. It’s deafeningly loud, and for a while, the amoral aura reverberates against the theatre walls, finding glee in its excess.
As a visual stylist, Van Groeningen crafts moments that feel like an immersive installation, where the film’s titular bar dizzies and emancipates. The here and now — the hedonistic present — is what the film’s best moments are interested in. The whirling montage sequences in the club dance to an electronic soundtrack without any concern of coherently evoking a passing of time. Flowing and jumping ahead 10 minutes or 10 hours — from day to night — it’s hard not to get lost in the pulsing rhythm.
When the focus is on the narrative and characters, the film is suffocatingly boring, however, tracing a clichéd narrative trajectory through the eyes of boringly archetypal characters, the simplistic rise and fall arc of the club with shallow character types who have simplistic psychologies and motivations. The story, the themes, and any deeper ideas feel like the movie’s hangover, a sickening afterthought that relies on shocking imagery and crude violence to rouse the audience out of the uneveness.
Belgica might grow into a tiresome and hollow failure but it marks a deviation from the predominant mode of pseudo-artsy filmmaking that has led to financial success and artistic compromise at Sundance. Thus, it’s easy to view the dramatically inert, unbelievably contrived, and technically amateurish Other People (4/10) through a darkly cynical lens, but the film, however misguided, comes from a place of untainted earnestness. In nearly every instance, it is simultaneously sincere and inauthentic. If Me And Earl And The Dying Girl managed to lampoon Sundance tropes while executing them to poignant extremes, Other People contains all the same ingredients for a festival hit, without the same emotional gusto or comedic bite.
David, a self-centered, self-loathing and self-conscious gay man in his 20s, is attempting to have a script picked up by a major TV network (the Me/Jesse Plemons) when he has to move back home from New York because his mother’s cancer (the Dying Girl/Molly Shannon) has spread, leaving her with only months to live. Two equally trite, formulaic but also thematically unrelated plot lines emerge. David tries to make his Christian father accepting of his homosexual lifestyle, while he also tries to care for his mother during her final months. Because it’s a Sundance movie with a gay lead, of course there are Grinder, butt-shaving and dick jokes. The lines of cocaine snorted in Belgica are like this film’s puerile jokes, indulging until it falls over face first. The screenplay by first time writer/director Chris Kelly (an SNL writer and Emmy nominee) relies heavily on drug humor, a puking gag and to mix things up an extended comedic dance by an androgynous child, even if it doesn’t serve the story in any way whatsoever. It’s all very quirky — all a little obnoxious.
Tonal inconsistencies come with this dramedy territory, but the issue is that the jokes don’t dig deeper into the material; they don’t hint at David’s psychological torment — the anguish he feels for his mother. Everything happens as planned; in almost an instance you could take the self-aware titles from Me And Earl, which was last year’s major acquisition here, and stick them on any scene in this film.
Over the course of the next week, new films by Kelley Reichardt, Werner Herzog and Todd Solondz will premiere alongside Mes, Earls and probably a lot of Dying Girls. This is the part of my Sundance movie where I would make some dumb narcissistic and self-aware comment. I’ll go to bed and hope tomorrow’s films are better, instead.
Tomorrow: The Free World, Ali & Nino, Wild.